When President Joyce Banda was being derided as a mandasi woman before she became the country's First Citizen, one woman totally disagreed.
As Vice President and after she fell out with the former president, the late Bingu wa Mutharika, Banda was often the butt of unkind jokes by the then ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) officials.
In castigating Banda, the DPP said she was not fit to be the country's president because all she knew was distributing little money to village women who sold fritters, locally known as mandasi.
But Elsie Limbe, 57, of Malensoma Village, Traditional Authority (TA) Malemia in Zomba, says she holds Banda in high esteem since "I am where I am today because Joyce Banda inspired me to be self reliant."
"As someone who owes the president a debt of gratitude for inspiring me, I think people who were mocking her needed to have their heads examined," says Limbe, a divorcee of eight children.
She says her association with Banda, from the time the latter headed the National Association of Business Women (Nabw) which she founded, has enabled her to live independently, despite being divorced.
"If there are women who have worked hard to promote the welfare of women in Malawi, she is one of them," Limbe says of Banda, calling her a "selfless mother who always wants to share the little she has."
Limbe remembers vividly how Nabw first influenced her at a meeting the association convened for women drawn from Zomba at the Community Hall in the city back in the 1990s.
She says many women attended that meeting. Nabw officials told them a Malawian woman should not stay idle, but should engage in income-generating activities to improve their families' living standards.
Nabw was established in 1990 and registered as an NGO to foster the participation of women in business enterprises through promotional support to existing and potential members.
The association also aims at upgrading the subsistence level of rural women entrepreneurs by forging linkages between urban and rural economic sectors, among its objectives and goals.
Inspired by the talk from the Nabw officials, Limbe instantly joined the organisation and has been up and down ever since, being an active member of various income generating groups.
Limbe says she is not well-off, but is able to support herself using the knowledge she has acquired by associating with business groups, "and I have Joyce Banda to thank for opening my eyes."
"You see those animals there," she says, pointing at three cows in a kraal within shouting distance. "They give me milk. I sell the milk and sometimes rear chickens too, making me to be self reliant."
She says when she joined Nabw and largely in part because of Banda's words of encouragement, she gained confidence and started to engage in income generating activities. She has never looked back.
"Joyce Banda organized numerous trainings for women that suited one's business," says Limbe, who has reverted to her maiden name. "I was one of the women who underwent the trainings."
She says from the business management trainings she had through the Development of Malawian Traders Trust (Dematt), she became clever at running her businesses.
Armed with the business management skills, Limbe became fearless. She started rearing chickens, and went into fish and dairy farming as well. Unsurprisingly, her financial problems began to diminish.
"I have cows that give me milk as you can see," she told Mana during the interview at her home. "And since I was trained in fish farming, I breed fish for sale and consumption when we have enough rains."
Limbe is also a member of the Chinangwa, Mbatata-Roots and Tubers Association (CMRTA), a Zomba-based farmers group that mobilizes and assists small holder farmers in the production, processing and marketing of high quality, fermented cassava flour and pounded dried cassava leaves.
And as a board member of CMRTA, which covers areas of TAs Kuntumanji and Malemia in Malosa Extension Planning Area (EPA), she has been to Nigeria and Kenya on study visits.
Limbe says Banda has been the driving force in her business ventures, and that many women the president has assisted in one way or another will say the same thing.
"Banda also inspired me when she won an international prize to do with fighting hunger," she says. "The fact that a fellow woman could achieve that feat gave me encouragement in my endevours."
In 1997, the New York-based, non government organization, Hunger Project, awarded Banda and Mozambique's former president Joachim Chissano, the Africa Prize for Leadership for the Sustainable End of Hunger. Banda is the founder of the Hunger Project in Malawi.
In 2006, she received the International Award for the Health and Dignity of Women for her dedication to the rights of women of Malawi by the Americans for United Nations Population Fund.
National accolades she has won include Woman of the Year, 1997 and 1998, and Nyasa Times Multimedia Person of the Year, 2010. And she has won numerous other international awards.
The American business magazine, Forbes, named President Banda as the 71st most powerful woman in the world in 2012, and the most powerful in Africa.
She was sworn in as Malawi's fourth president on April 7 this year in accordance with the country's Constitution, following the sudden death of her predecessor, Mutharika on April 5.
Banda used to visit Limbe when she was a Cabinet Minister as well as Member of Parliament for the area (Zomba Malosa Constituency) to see her business and offer encouragement.
"We should all be proud of her and what she has achieved as a Malawian woman," says Limbe, who now imitates the president's way of dressing. "It is unfortunate that some people could deride such a figure."
She cites some women who started stationery and transport businesses in the 1990s as proof of Banda's determination to see women in the country advance even before she became president. She says:
"Some women acquired trucks through NABW to run transport businesses. Others opened stationery shops. Were all these women selling mandasi? Even if she did help mandasi women, was that bad?"
Limbe has not met Banda since the latter assumed the country's highest office. She longs to meet the president to congratulate her on being Malawi's first woman Head of State.
She adds: "And of course, I will tell her to continue helping all mandasi women. I can assure her of my unwavering support, whether she is a mandasi woman or not." – MANA